Electronic Music’s First Century and the Theremin

September 20, 2019
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Innovation comes in many guises. The “Play It Loud” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art spotlights the star instruments that made music electronic. There’s Muddy Waters’ blues axe and a shard of the psychedelic guitar that Jimi Hendrix set aflame at Monterey. I always thought the first successful electric instrument was Charlie Christian’s Gibson. Tucked near the back of the exhibition is a small boxy item that doesn’t look like an instrument at all. Yet it was the one that came first.

The theremin kicked off the first century of electronic music. Invented by Russian musician and scientist Lev Theremin, it bears his name.

For Smithsonian’s Innovative Spirit section I wrote about Theremin and his invention. The story twists from radio engineers in World War I to Jazz Age New York and Carnegie Hall’s stage.

Theremin in performance: The left hand moderates pitch while the right hand adjusts volume.

It was a treat to speak with curators at the Met and theremin composers about this little-known influencer. “Theremin has touched the lives of countless musicians and scientists,” Robert Moog wrote, “and his work is a vital cornerstone of our contemporary music technology.”

Watch a theremin performance in a video of Dorit Chrysler performing at CERN. And check out the full Smithsonian article.

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